A Mysterious Life
By Laura Thompson
Illustrated. 534 pp. Pegasus Books. $35.
As many Agatha Christie fans know, in 1926 the popular author disappeared for 11 days, an event that spawned a huge manhunt and a tabloid frenzy. Suspicion was cast on Christie’s philandering husband, her personal assistant and even a serial killer. Many assumed Christie had committed suicide, and thousands of civilians joined in the search for her body. When she was found, unharmed and apparently in a cheerful mood, in the elegant spa town of Harrogate, Yorkshire, the media turned on her viciously. Although her family quickly announced that she was suffering from amnesia, many assumed the disappearance had been a calculated and irresponsible publicity stunt. At that moment, Agatha Christie first became controversial.
Despite her cozy plots and neat endings, she has stayed that way. Almost since the beginning of her career, there have been two passionate camps on the subject of her oeuvre. There are the devotees, who reread particular titles for comfort, flock to online chat rooms to revisit favorite poisonings and confer with fellow obsessives over the merits of respective portrayers of Poirot. And then there are the skeptics. These — Edmund Wilson was among the first — take the delight of New Atheists in poking holes in these same security blankets, denouncing Christie’s hoary formulas, her two-dimensional characters, her bigotry. Neither group will find much to like in Laura Thompson’s “Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life,” a book that makes mysteries where none are to be found.
Apart from her disappearance, the basic facts of Christie’s life are established. She was born Agatha Miller in 1890 to an upper-middle-class Victorian family in Torquay, Devon. Her improvident American father died young; her mother worshiped her. After a brief stint as a war nurse, Agatha married Archibald Christie, began writing mysteries, had a daughter, wrote books, divorced, wrote even more books, married the archaeologist Max Mallowan, wrote even more and died in 1976, a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire and runner-up to Shakespeare as the best-selling writer of all time.
It takes considerable work to wrest these facts from Thompson’s voluminous book. Part of the problem is that she draws heavily on Christie’s published writing, seemingly determined to illustrate nearly every episode of Christie’s actual life with an episode from her fiction. The general effect is that of a high school student trying to meet a word limit on an English paper.
This technique can be disorienting. When discussing an event in Christie’s early childhood, Thompson (whose previous work includes a true-crime narrative and two books about the Mitford family) is apt to offer a quotation from a detective novel written 50 years later, followed by a plot summary of this irrelevant book. More than once, she uses the same quotation to illustrate different points. If this weren’t confusing enough, Thompson has little regard for chronology. We hear nothing of Christie’s elder brother, Monty, for example, until she reaches adolescence — at which point we’re told the entire story of his life, up to his death in 1929.
When dealing with Christie’s 1926 disappearance, Thompson lays off the quotations, giving us 40 pages of imagined history, a reconstruction she calls “a myth, a poem.” In her fantasizing, Christie “walked and walked. She was a ghost but she felt quite happy, walking through the gardens, feeling strong again in her body.”
Enough of this and the reader longs to return to the book reports. Thompson sheds disappointingly little light on this one truly enigmatic passage in Christie’s life: “The 11 days are the creation of an artist, a writer; and writers live life differently. Their motives are always mixed, because to them everything is a story. That is their escape, their freedom. That is their way.”
This is Thompson’s fallback explanation for many aspects of her subject’s unexplained behavior. She has a high regard for Christie’s genius and makes much of Christie’s “complexity.” Also her “simplicity.” Of Christie’s snobbery, Thompson writes, “As only a highly complex person can, she created simplicity.” Of her conflicted attitudes toward feminism, “She had a simplicity that resolved her complexities.”
Thompson clearly feels that she must defend Christie’s artistry from attack: “Because of her simplicity she has been misunderstood.” “Because of her facility — which nonetheless did not come easily — and her unusual clarity of exposition, Agatha Christie has been regarded as a craftsperson rather than a writer.” And yet, for all the claims of genius, for all the quotations from Christie’s fiction, for all of Thompson’s evident desire to present Agatha Christie as a serious artist, we come away with curiously little sense of this writer or her contemporaries’ reactions to her work. Indeed, the most cohesive portion of the biography is that in which we learn a little about Christie’s creative process: her titles, her motifs, her means of crafting plots. Unfortunately, this comes nearly 400 pages in.
It’s too bad that Thompson is so intent on larding her book with her subject’s own writing, because when she stops for a moment she’s capable of sparkle and insight. Of Christie’s mysteries, she writes: “The finished product had to be impregnable. Its geometry had to be capable of being turned this way and that, like a jewel in the sunlight. It had to be constructed so that it could be satisfyingly dismantled. Then everything had to be hidden from view.”
Agatha Christie was notoriously private in later life, which goes some way toward explaining Thompson’s dependence on her fiction; it simply doesn’t seem that many primary sources are available. The letters and notebooks that survive don’t reveal much; the reader comes away with a picture not of striking simplicity or complexity but of a rather conventional person who wrote a staggering number of books. Did she take pleasure in having diverted and entertained and distracted so many readers, of imposing a comforting structure on the mysteries of death and evil? Thompson, intent on establishing Christie as an artist, never even raises the question.
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